Over the course of the last several years, we have experienced loss in the Copper River School District: We have seen a drop in enrollment as families have relocated to Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the Lower 48. The number of faculty and staff members has decreased as a result of fewer students in our schools. These declines have resulted in fewer classes, in general, available in CRSD classrooms. Fortunately,we have been able to expand students’ opportunities to specialty courses, advanced coursework, and career pathway classes through e-learning options. However, adding hands-on opportunities and finding ways to make high-interest courses available to all students in the district has been a challenge.
Until this year and the advent of the Basecamp/Trek Variable-Term Schedule.
Throughout the 2014-15 school year, Superintendent Johnson’s constant refrain in conversations about scheduling was simple: Create more opportunities for all high school students, at all of our high schools. Wow. It sounds simple…but high school scheduling is like chess, with every course placement on the scheduling chess board affecting other courses. In a small district like the CRSD, single sections of classes make it very challenging (often impossible) to create equitable access to classes for students. Glennallen High School students were limited in elective courses because single sections of required classes (Biology or Geometry, for example) may have scheduled during the same period as single sections of electives like Visual Arts or Welding. For students at Kenny Lake and Slana, the situation was even worse, with so few elective classes available in traditional classrooms that online courses were the only options.
So, during the previous school year, we explored ways to do more with less. We were inspired by Chugach School District’s Voyage to Excellence program, which provides students with specialized programming at their dorm facility in Anchorage during five to ten day “phases” throughout the school year. The downside of their model, however, is that when students participate in specialty programming, they are missing instruction in their regular classes. What if, we wondered, we created a schedule that would allow the best of both worlds? A traditional schedule with several classes meeting each day, combined with shorter bursts of specialized learning opportunities with longer class periods for more hands-on opportunities…? After months of planning and conversations with parents, community members, teachers, and students…and after presentations about the schedule to ASBs, PTOs, at school board work sessions, and in assemblies with students…we determined that a variable-term high school schedule consisting of “Basecamps” and “Treks” was an opportunity to help us achieve our goal of providing more opportunities for all high school students in the CRSD.
After completing our first Basecamp (the first four weeks of the school year, during which students took four classes and an optional PLUS period class), and after just wrapping up our first Trek (two weeks during which students take one class in the morning and one in the afternoon, with an optional PLUS period class), we have plenty of initial feedback to support the success of this model…and we couldn’t be more excited! Not only does the model appear to provide more opportunities to more students on paper, but feedback from the vast majority of students, staff, and administrators supports the reality of this success in the classroom and lives of our teachers and learners.
Fall semester Treks include Aluminum Fabrication, Digital Photography & Videography, Family & Consumer Science, Intro to Aviation, Recreational Small Engines, Research in Science, Dystopian Literature, General Technology, Robotics and Engineering, English Language Arts, Physical Science, Visual Arts, Conservation and Outdoor Skills, Woodworking, Strength Training, Guitar, and a number of student-selected e-learning courses. In addition to CRSD teachers leading these exciting courses, a number of content area experts from the community are lending a hand, as well. Becky Schwanke is working with CRSD Guidance Counselor Jim Lorence to provide highly engaging, hands-on experiences in the Conservation and Outdoor Skills class, and BLM Biologist (and CRSD Board of Education member) Mark Somerville contributes to this course, as well. Misty Rude (a CRSD parent with a background in theater and the stage) has partnered with CRSD teacher Tim Shumway to lead the Theater class, and AV STEM’s Grant Funk helped kick off the Intro to Aviation course in which students have already taken their first field trip to the Gakona Airport.
Our commitment to making additional opportunities available to all students required transportation for students from Slana and Kenny Lake Schools, allowing them to take advantage of courses on the Glennallen campus, as well. Slana School’s two high school students and eight students from Kenny Lake became part of CRSD Treks at Glennallen, where they are able to utilize the shop, theater, home economics rooms, and visual arts studio – facilities not available in their schools. In addition, a few Upstream Learning student are joining classrooms during Treks for hands-on learning, as well.
Comments made early in the first Trek by long-time CRSD teacher Gene Crow sums up what many other teachers have expressed in conversations and surveys throughout the first six weeks of this school year. According to Mr. Crow, “This has been by far the
most fun that I have had teaching… ever! This is how I have wanted to teach for years, heck decades. With this total immersion style of learning I am able to dig deeply into subject matter with the kids like never before.” CRSD teacher Tim Shumway also noted, “A neat experience in the Trek has been getting Kenny Lake and Glennallen students in the same room, talking to one another face to face. I think it is building important bridges in our communities. …Because of this schedule, we are able to offer a course like [Dystopian Literature] – something that simply couldn’t have happened with a traditional schedule.”
And what do the students think? At the end of the first Trek, they were asked to complete a survey to provide feedback to their teachers and administration regarding their chosen Treks and the variable-term schedule. Of the 68 high school students completing the survey, not a single student chose “Ugh. I don’t like my Trek at all” to describe their level of satisfaction, and the majority of students selected “Best class ever!” as the appropriate descriptor. While not every student said he or she loved every aspect of their Treks or the schedule (true no matter what kind of schedule is in place), the vast majority of the feedback was positive, including comments about how Trek classes “will help me get a good job in the future,” appreciating a break from Basecamp classes after four weeks, and “feeling busy instead of bored” in school this year.
And it isn’t just faculty and staff in the CRSD that sees the Basecamp/Trek schedule as being a potential game-changer: On Tuesday, September 29th, Alaska Commissioner of Education Michael Hanley visited the CRSD and spent time in nearly all of the Trek classrooms at Glennallen and Kenny Lake. He, too, was impressed with this approach to creating a sustainable scheduling model for schools and students in rural Alaska…where the “new normal” requires us to discover ways to do more with less. In the case of the Basecamp/Trek schedule, we are doing far more with the same resources than we could previously have dreamed possible, and we appreciate the hard work of stakeholders involved in bringing this initiative to fruition.